2019: Democracy Strikes Back

The year 2019 was a triumph for democracy. Millions of people took to the streets, from Hong Kong to Sudan, in opposition to growing inequality, autocratic laws, and oppressive governments. All these protest movements were in support of democracy—government of, by, and for the people. The images of Hong Kong protestors clashing with riot police and Iranians tearing down statues of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei signaled two things: while authoritarianism is undoubtedly on the rise, a democratic backlash is rising to meet it.

Rise of Authoritarianism

In contrast to democracy, authoritarianism is a system of government characterized by limited political freedoms and a strong central government. Think of places like North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where officials control the people and stop them from speaking out against the government. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it seemed that authoritarianism had been dealt a fatal blow. There was great optimism that democracy would subsequently spread throughout the world, eventually becoming the only system of government. Over the past decade, however, the world has seen a marked decline in democracy and a rise in authoritarian governments. Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that tracks political freedoms across the globe, reports that democracy has been declining worldwide for thirteen consecutive years [1]. 

In Turkey, President Erdogan is now a de facto dictator, imprisoning tens of thousands of political dissenters [2]. In the Philippines, President Duterte carried out a deadly drug war against the poorest people in the country, and is redirecting the nation away from the U.S. and towards China. Other countries that have experienced a decline in democracy include Hungary, Brazil, Russia, and China. All have seen the rise and growing power of authoritarian leaders who disdain democracy and reject the idea that a government should serve its people [3]. 

Democratic Backlash

This last year, however, democracy earnestly responded. The world saw the downfall of several dictators and resignation of corrupt heads of state. In Sudan, the people rose up against long-time dictator Omar Al-Bashir, ousting him from power. In Lebanon, the people took to the streets, forcing the resignation of the Prime Minister and the reformation of a corrupt and unfair government. In the most widely covered mass movement of the year, millions filled the streets in Hong Kong in protest of a proposed bill that would have allowed China to further encroach on Hong Kong’s democratic system. The people of Hong Kong gave up work and school to fight on the frontlines of democracy, and they are still fighting today. They have a growing sense that if they do not make their stand now, then it will be too late to stop mainland China from replacing democracy with the Chinese brand of authoritarian rule.

Beyond these examples, protestors also filled the squares and streets of Iran, Iraq, India, Chile, Algeria, Bolivia, Venezuela, Haiti, and Colombia [4]. The world has not seen such a demonstration of democratic protest and people-power movements since the collapse of the Soviet Union [5]. However, it must be noted that not all of the protest movements have been peaceful or effective in obtaining their demands for reform. Authoritarian governments are also developing new tactics to root-out protest and strengthen their hold over their people, often with the use of technology [6]. But millions are still fighting, protesting, and marching because they believe that governments are made to serve the people.

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the real-time trends of authoritarianism and democracy. We can, however, gain increased hope for the future of democracy from the events of 2019. Last year, dictators and authoritarian governments everywhere were served notice that their oppressive actions have limits. As they saw other dictatorships and governments collapse in the face of protests and popular uprisings, authoritarian leaders were reminded that democracy is fighting back, and that it will not go down without a fight.

[1] https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2019

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-44519112

[3]  https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-08-13/autocracy-now

[4] https://www.pri.org/stories/2019-12-30/protests-rocked-world-2019

[5] https://www.economist.com/international/2019/11/04/why-are-so-many-countries-witnessing-mass-protests[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/11/16/this-may-be-largest-wave-nonviolent-mass-movements-world-history-what-comes-next/

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Nathan McQuarrie

NATHAN MCQUARRIE is a senior from Provo, Utah, majoring in Political Science with minors in business, statistics, and international strategy and diplomacy. Nathan is a political junkie and enjoys watching CSPAN, reading the social media posts of his elected representatives, and unapologetically engaging everyone around him in political conversations. After graduating from BYU, Nathan plans on working for several years before pursuing a master’s degree in international affairs. Nathan’s dream is to one day have someone write a Wikipedia page about him, preferably without a “controversies” subsection.

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Nathan McQuarrie

NATHAN MCQUARRIE is a senior from Provo, Utah, majoring in Political Science with minors in business, statistics, and international strategy and diplomacy. Nathan is a political junkie and enjoys watching CSPAN, reading the social media posts of his elected representatives, and unapologetically engaging everyone around him in political conversations. After graduating from BYU, Nathan plans on working for several years before pursuing a master’s degree in international affairs. Nathan’s dream is to one day have someone write a Wikipedia page about him, preferably without a “controversies” subsection.

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